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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 03/ 4/2011

Why May 5 matters in the 2012 presidential race

By Chris Cillizza

And then there was one -- sort of.

Friday Line

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's kind-of, sort-of toe-dipping into the presidential waters on Thursday amounts to the kickoff of the 2012 Republican primary fight with several other serious contenders -- including former Govs. Haley Barbour (Miss.), Mitt Romney (Mass.) and Tim Pawlenty (Minn.) -- expected to enter the contest officially over the next few months.

But when might we know the full scope of the field? Circle May 5 on your calendars.

That's the day of the first-in-the-south presidential debate being hosted by the South Carolina Republican Party and, more importantly for our purposes, Fox News Channel.

Earlier this week, Fox sent a clear signal to Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) -- both of whom are contributors to the cable network -- that weighing a presidential bid and appearing on its airwaves simultaneously is no longer acceptable. The network placed both men on leave effective immediately and said that their contracts would be voided on May 1 unless they had announced their intention not to run for president by then.

That deadline, coming just four days before a Fox debate, seems too well-timed to be accidental. And, while Santorum and Gingrich will almost certainly be in the race by that point, the May 5 debate could also wind up serving as a functional deadline to decide for two more high-profile Fox contributors: Former Govs. Sarah Palin (Alaska) and Mike Huckabee (Ark.).

It's hard to imagine that Fox would take such a hard line on Gingrich and Santorum while allowing Palin and Huckabee to continue to appear on its airwaves up to and through the May 5 debate without any public decision about their political futures.

There are only 62 days between now and the South Carolina Fox debate. The decision clock is ticking.

As always, the number one ranked candidate on the Line is considered the most likely to wind up as the Republican presidential nominee in 2012.

Whose ranked too high? Too low? The comments section awaits.

Coming off the Line: John Thune
Coming onto the Line: Michele Bachmann

10. Rick Santorum: It was a worrisome sign for the former Pennsylvania Senator that he wasn't able to pack the ballroom for his speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference last month in Washington, D.C. The CPAC crowd should be in Santorum's wheelhouse but the two-thirds full room suggests that his lack of star power could well hurt his attempts to gain traction in early states. On the other hand, Santorum has made some impressive early state hires and his conservative credentials are impeccable. It's not yet clear whether Santorum can put it all together, however. (Previous ranking: 10)

9. Michele Bachmann: The Minnesota Republican House member is doing everything she can to give off the impression she is seriously considering a run for president. The latest sign? She will headline a fundraiser later this month to benefit the New Hampshire Republican Party. For tea-party aligned voters, Bachmann is a rock star; she was mobbed everywhere she went during last month's CPAC gathering and her speech brought wild applause from the audience. But, Bachmann has little real political operation and virtually zero demonstrated ability -- or willingness -- to court voters outside of her conservative base. Still, if former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin doesn't run, Bachmann would be the candidate most likely to emerge as the tea party pick. (Previous ranking: N/A)

8. Jon Huntsman: All signs point to Huntsman getting into the presidential race when he returns to the U.S. at the end of April. The biggest problem for the former Utah governor is the job from which he is returning -- ambassador to China for the Obama Administration. With the Republican electorate deeply opposed to Obama and anything that bears his name, it will be tough for Huntsman to get past hello with many voters. (Witness former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu who described Huntsman as "only barely a Republican" in a recent interview.) If Huntsman can get past his ties to Obama, then his natural charisma as well as his top-notch campaign team and personal wealth could make a compelling combination. (Previous ranking: 9)

7. Haley Barbour: For a man whose political chops are beyond question, the Mississippi Governor has had a rough go of it in the last few months. Late last year Barbour was at the center of a national controversy over remarks he made in a Weekly Standard profile in which he seemed to suggest that the fight for civil rights was not so bad in his native Mississippi -- despite historical evidence to the contrary. Then last month, Barbour got caught up again on race when he refused to denounce a proposal to honor Confederate general -- and early Ku Klux Klan organizer -- Nathan Bedford Forrest on the state's license plates. Despite the slip-ups, Barbour seems to be moving toward not away from a presidential bid as his self-imposed deadline comes due next month. (Previous ranking: 6)

6. Mitch Daniels: Daniels is in Hamlet mode at the moment as he tries to decide whether or not he wants to run for president. He proved in his speech at CPAC last month that if he runs, he would be a formidable voice in the race -- sounding the alarm on the dangers of America's ever-mounting debt. While Daniels' speech won widespread plaudits in the pundit community, we still wonder whether someone who is almost exclusively animated by fiscal issues and has called for a truce on hot button social matters can win a Republican presidential nomination. Those close to Daniels -- and there aren't many -- insist he is genuinely undecided on the race. Whether Daniels ultimately runs or not may come down to his wife, Cheri, who is reportedly not keen on the idea. (Previous ranking: 7)

5. Mike Huckabee: Everything Huckabee himself is saying lately seems to suggest he isn't likely to run; "I'm not one who thinks the future of the world is depending on whether I run for president," Huckabee recently told Fix colleague Karen Tumulty. And yet, Huckabee continues to lead in nearly every national poll on the 2012 Republican race and is regarded as a frontrunner in Iowa -- where he won in 2008 -- if he runs again. We remain skeptical that Huckabee will give up a very good life in the private sector for another run for president, and his timetable to decide -- likely sometime in the summer -- adds to that sense. Still, stranger things have happened in presidential politics and if Huckabee does get in, there is a case to be made that he could be the nominee. (Previous ranking: 4)

4. Newt Gingrich: As we've noted in this space of late, Gingrich is his own best advocate and worst enemy all wrapped up in one compelling, confusing package. Based on his speech-making abilities, debating skills and demonstrated fundraising prowess, Gingrich should be in the top three of the Line. But, his tendency to veer of message coupled with early signs of dysfunction or, at the very least, miscommunication in his inner circle keep him out of the medal positions on the Line. We still believe Gingrich is well positioned to surprise people in Iowa and a better-than-expected finish in the Hawkeye State would put him in a position to be a player for the nomination. Can Gingrich stay on message -- or something approximating it -- for the next 11 months? (Previous ranking: 3)

3. Sarah Palin: Puzzling out Palin's intentions as they relate to the 2012 presidential race is virtually impossible. Tea leaf readers -- aren't we all? -- took it as a sign that she was moving toward a run when Palin hired Michael Glassner as chief of staff for her political action committee. Of course, Palin also has lost several staffers in recent months -- most notably Jason Recher -- so it's equally plausible to assume those departures mean she isn't running. Here's what we know: Palin is the least orthodox candidate to be a serious contender for a party's presidential nomination in modern history. Her stock also may be on the decline; new polling data out of Iowa suggests she would be something short of a sure thing in the caucuses if she ran. (Previous ranking: 2)

2. Tim Pawlenty: The former Minnesota governor is starting to win people -- including the Fix -- over. He is diligently working at building organizations in Iowa and New Hampshire and there are some signs that those efforts are paying off as he placed a solid third in a January straw poll in the Granite State. The biggest knock on Pawlenty is that he's too nice and/or not charismatic enough to win the nomination. But, Pawlenty is improving -- his 2011 speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference was far better than the 2010 edition -- and, given the flaws in the field, being too nice isn't all that bad. As a result, Pawlenty is the name you hear on more and more lips when asking neutral Republicans who they think their nominee might be. And that's a great place to be right now. (Previous ranking: 5)

1. Mitt Romney: The critics of the health care plan Romney signed into law as governor of Massachusetts have grown more numerous and vocal of late; Former Huckabee, Barbour and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan have all expressed their doubts about Romney's plan. Romney appears to have made a strategic decision not to address the issue just yet, making nary a mention of the health care law in a speech at the CPAC last month. While health care is clearly a liability for Romney, we've noted that everyone in the field has their problems. And Romney still has the best political operation and easiest access to big fundraising dollars in the field. (Previous ranking: 1)

By Chris Cillizza  | March 4, 2011; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  The Line  
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